Upstaging the Chief Minister’s pet themes of development and “unnayon’’ (progress), corruption has emerged as the most important issue in the West Bengal Assembly elections. This could well be a first — corruption has never been an election issue in the state before — and ironically under a politician who shot to national fame due to her feisty opposition, and gradual subjugation, of the Left Front, but also in part due to her simplicity.
As the Congress-Left Front alliance and BJP used the recently released Narada sting tapes to mount pressure on the Trinamool Congress (TMC), Mamata Banerjee’s poll platform began shifting, from virulent attack on the Opposition by calling the sting a political conspiracy to the desperate pleas to voters to “forgive” her for “any mistake”.
While analysts say the TMC still has a strong base in both rural and urban Bengal, Mamata’s changing statements have shown an increasingly nervous Chief Minister, and party. Soon after the Narada tapes on March 14 purportedly showed 11 senior TMC leaders accepting wads of cash, the party rubbished the tapes. Newly reinstated TMC as vice-president, Mukul Roy called the tapes “doctored” and a “political conspiracy”.
Days before, Mamata had kicked off her campaign from Malda, a traditional Congress bastion. She took on the Congress-CPI(M) coalition, calling it opportunistic. There was not a word on Narada.
At Manbazar, Purulia, on March 29, she zoomed in on development, bringing peace to Jangalmahal, and her pet schemes — sabuj saathi (bicycles given to girl students) and Kanyashree (monetary aid for families educating girl children). Neither Narada nor Saradha, a chit fund scam that had broken earlier, wiping out life’s savings of thousands.
At a rally attended by thousands in Kharagpur just days before that Manbazar mass meeting, Prime Minister Narendra Modi brought corruption to the centre stage, tying Saradha inexorably to Narada. “This is the parivartan (change) that Didi has brought: Saradha se Narada tak (from Saradha to Narada),’’ he thundered.
Modi wasn’t off the mark — most TMC leaders shown allegedly taking money in the Narada tapes have been named in the Saradha chit fund scam as well. For many, the Narada tapes were a visual confirmation of the corruption that has taken hold of TMC.
On March 31, an under-construction flyover in Burrabazar collapsed, killing 27 people. From under the debris arose allegations that material supplied for its construction came from a relative of the local MLA, Trinamool’s Smita Bakshi. It brought into focus the alleged “Syndicate Raj” — gangs of TMC henchmen who control construction and development in and around Kolkata.
The series of events, along with a mounting Opposition attack, finally appeared to crack a till-then-impassive Mamata. At a public meeting in Kulti on April 8, she admitted that all may not be well: “I am at fault. I am taking responsibility for all errors. You can be angry with me, but do not deprive Trinamool Congress of your blessings. Otherwise it will be difficult for me to move ahead.” Two days later, TMC finally ordered an internal probe into the Narada charges.
A week later, on April 17, the CM made a startling admission at Bowbazar, in the heart of Kolkata. “An illegal company had done this (carry out the sting operation shown by Narada) in 2014. Why bring this up now? Had it been earlier, I would have thought about it. Nothing can be done now. I cannot change candidates after announcing their names,” Mamata said.
Two days later, Mukul Roy, who also featured in the tapes, said in Bardhaman that money had been taken, though not for personal reasons but for the party.
From a brazen snub to fierce rebuttals to this veiled admission of corruption — this is what Opposition parties now see as a possible turning point in the election. All, they contend, cannot be well in the ruling party, as well as on ground, if the Chief Minister has had to come this far. The Trinamool’s main strongholds — Howrah, Hooghly, North and South 24 Paraganas districts — meanwhile go to polls in the next two phases.